American Elephants

Are Our Playgrounds Too Safe? Can We Fix It? by The Elephant's Child

There was an article in the New York Times a week ago about playgrounds, titled “Can a Playground Be Too Safe?” by John Tierney.  Do follow the link, for there is a lovely picture of a real jungle gym. I searched Google images for a good picture of a jungle gym, and jungle gyms have not only disappeared from the nation’s playgrounds, but there aren’t apparently any old pictures of them.

The playground in one of my neighborhood’s parks has become so safe that it appeals only to two and three-year-olds.  I don’t know whether at some point my city was sued successfully, or whether the city attorneys just warned of perilous possibilities. Some maker of playground equipment that runs to little houses with holes in the wall for kids to climb through apparently came to the city with a big dog and pony show, convincing city officials that kids would love to play make-believe in little houses.

Well, the little ones are too little for make-believe, and the bigger ones quickly get bored after climbing on the roofs of the little houses.  Watching kids there, you can sense their boredom and frustration.

Boise, Idaho has a hot spring somewhere under the city. They once had a splendid set of two near-Olympic size pools adjacent to each other. The water was warm and the pools were popular.  I suppose it was liability insurance that made the city fill them in and plow them under.  Fullerton, California once had a privately owned set of pools, wading, soaking and swimming, that were lovely and popular, but the land probably became too valuable and the liability insurance too costly. All gone.

When my daughter was young, there were stables where little girls could take riding lessons and love horses devotedly. All gone.  Mr. Tierney’s article quotes a professor of psychology from a university in Norway:

“Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground,” said Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University in Norway. “I think monkey bars and tall slides are great. As playgrounds become more and more boring, these are some of the few features that still can give children thrilling experiences with heights and high speed.”

After observing children on playgrounds in Norway, England and Australia, Dr. Sandseter identified six categories of risky play: exploring heights, experiencing high speed, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements (like water or fire), rough-and-tumble play (like wrestling), and wandering alone away from adult supervision. The most common is climbing heights.

“Climbing equipment needs to be high enough, or else it will be too boring in the long run,” Dr. Sandseter said. “Children approach thrills and risks in a progressive manner, and very few children would try to climb to the highest point for the first time they climb. The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years.”

Most adults have lost the perspective of childhood. They can’t remember the thrills and the challenges unless they were one of the many kids who tried to jump off the roof with an umbrella or by flapping their arms. Society has  become much scarier. Backyards are disappearing along with vacant lots. There were lots of vacant lots in my neighborhood when my kids were growing up and neighborhood kids had unauthorized treehouses on most of them.

Playgrounds are designed so that toddlers won’t hurt themselves, thus depriving older children of healthy exercise.  What happens in playgrounds is determined by tort lawyers.  Asphalt surfaces are gone, replaced by bark and rubber surface. Some kids may hurt themselves, they may fall, they may break a bone. We have too many lawyers. Some people are too ready to sue.  Loser pays would help. Surely we can find ways to make playgrounds that offer real challenges while removing the real dangers.

Perhaps childhood obesity is not due to kids eating too many happy meals. “Let’s Move” is good advice, but kids need better playgrounds on which to get moving. Somebody tell Mrs. Obama.

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